President Obama’s Misplaced Trust In The “Moderate” Syrian Rebels

After keeping his distance from them for three years, President Obama is placing much misplaced hope in the "moderate" Syrian rebels,

Syrian Rebels

One of the lynch pins of President Obama’s strategy against ISIS appears to be increasing support for the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels, who apparently would be tasked with fighting something akin to a two front war against both the Assad regime in Damascus and the jihadist rebels that are part of and allied with ISIS. Along with an international coalition that seems at the moment to exist only in theory, these rebels allied with groups such as the Free Syrian Army would apparently make up the majority of the ground force that would be necessary to actually push back against the territory gains that ISIS has made in both Iraq and Syria in recent years. In many respects, this is yet another chapter in a debate that has gripped American government since the Syrian civil war started. On the one side, there have been those such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham who have been arguing in favor of arming these so-called Syrian “moderates,” and more, in public for years. More quietly, and as she made clear in her new book, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was an advocate behind the scenes in favor of providing arms for the rebels. While the United States has provided medical and other humanitarian relief, President Obama consistently refrained from providing arms to the rebels, in no small part because of the fact that we could never be sure exactly who we were dealing with, nor could we ensure that the arms we did provide wouldn’t eventually find their way into the hands of the jihadists.

Now, however, those concerns seem to be falling by the wayside. While the Administration has not formally advocated a program to arm and train the rebels, that certainly seems to be where this is headed, and there are reports that the President may ask Congress to do just this before they leave town for the campaign season at the end of the month. As The New York Times points out today in an Editorial, however, this is an exceedingly risky strategy that doesn’t seem to have very good odds of success:

Groups identified by Western intelligence agencies as the moderate opposition — those that might support democracy and respect human rights — have been weak, divided and without coherent plans or sustained command structures capable of toppling the Assad regime. Today, those so-called moderates are even weaker and more divided; in some cases, their best fighters are hard-line Islamists.

In ruling out sending American combat troops into yet another Muslim country, Mr. Obama’s plan relies on these rebels to serve as ground forces to defend and seize territory after American airstrikes in Syria, for which he needs to seek congressional approval. But training and equipping them will be complicated and risky, and will take months, if not longer. ISIS, which the C.I.A. said Thursday has as many as 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria, is already well-equipped and has proved to be stunningly skillful at waging war and seizing territory in both Iraq and Syria.


One complication is the federal ban on sending military aid to people with a history of human rights abuses. The C.I.A. has been working for some time to vet the Syrian rebels, but on a limited scale; the expanded mission, which would include more fighters, is likely to make vetting even more difficult.

Beyond that, there are bigger questions. The main target of the United States right now is ISIS, but for the mainstream rebel groups, getting rid of Mr. Assad is the main goal. How do you reconcile those competing goals? How do you avoid a flare-up of anti-American sentiment? The Assad government and its allies Russia and Iran have condemned Mr. Obama’s plans, but how will they react when the military campaign begins? And how can weapons shipped to rebel fighters be kept out of the hands of ISIS?

America’s success at training security forces in other countries is mixed at best. Billions of dollars have been spent building up the Iraqi army, only to have key units collapse in the face of the ISIS invasion of Mosul. Unless the Obama administration can do better with the Syrian rebels, there is no chance the fight against ISIS can be successful.

The questions that the Times raise here are ones that neither the advocates of arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels nor the Administration have answered to date. In addition to these, though, there is also the question of just how much we can trust these so-called moderates. One of the primary fears that have been raised by critics of the idea of arming these groups, for example, has been that they would simply turn around and either trade or sell these arms to more extremist elements who are, after all, fighting for the same thing that they are when it comes to the war against the Assad regime. Not withstanding the fact that ISIS and groups like the Free Syrian Army have apparently clashed on the ground at times, there are also signs that they are far more cooperative with each other than the advocates of greater American military involvement would have people believe. One extreme example of this can be seen in the reports, admittedly unconfirmed, that one of these so-called “moderate” groups may have sold American journalist Steven Sotoloff, who was beheaded by ISIS in one of their now infamous videos, to ISIS at some point after he was initially taken prisoner. If these are the kind of people that President Obama is relying upon in order to push back against an ISIS Army that has a remarkable run of success in recent months, then he would appear to be placing his hopes on the wrong party.

In the end, of course, it’s unclear that President Obama really has a choice here. American air power could do much to degrade ISIS’s military power, but military analysts have said repeatedly that it will not be enough to dislodge the group from the areas where it has consolidated control. That is going to require some kind of offensive on the ground, and that is going to require the Iraqi Army, the Kurds, and the “moderate” Syrian rebels, along with an international coalition that seems to exist more in theory than fact at the moment. The problem that the President faces is that the Iraqi Army has been decimated and demoralized by the ISIS advances, the Kurds seem to be mostly concerned with consolidating and protecting their territory in the north, and that the “moderate” rebels are both weak and unreliable. The only other conceivable alternative would seem to be American, and possibly British, ground forces just as we saw in Iraq in 2003 and in Afghanistan. For obvious reasons, though, the Administration seems reluctant to go down that road, in no small part because the broad political support that we see for the idea of air strikes would disappear if ground forces were sent in. The question is whether the President may find himself forced to make that decision whether he likes it or not,.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Military Affairs, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    it will not be enough to dislodge the group from the areas where it has consolidated control.

    True. But I’ve argued from the start that what we need, and what we are in fact doing, is containment. I realize I’m reading between the lines of stated US policy, but I don’t think rolling ISIS back was ever the plan. I think the plan is to contain, degrade, and wait for the contradictions inherent in the ISIS system to reduce ISIS. If that’s the actual (unstated) policy then US air power and local forces will do the job nicely.

    That said, this is three-dimensional chess. There’s a whole lot more double-dealing, backstabbing, betrayal, hypocrisy and sheer incompetence ahead.

  2. Jack says:

    Do you mean the “moderate” Syrian rebels that just reached a cease fire with ISIS? Yeah, we shouldn’t be arming them as any weapons we deliver will likely end up in the hands of ISIS. Good plan there Obama.

    Next thing you know, this dolt will call for the arming of China and Russia in their quest to overthrow the United States.

  3. michael reynolds says:


    Why don’t you explain how you would handle this? Be specific, be realistic and name names:


    And if one of the steps is “swagger around and talk tough” you lose.

  4. Jack says:

    @michael reynolds: Not my job. The President has an entire staff devoted to this issue. But yeah, you keep trying to push this in light of the facts.

    It’s funny how you would expect me to do something the president has yet to do.

  5. Stonetools says:

    If your standard of whether to do a foreign intervention is never do anything unless you have a 100 per cent chance of success, you will never do any foreign intervention.
    Can the USA arm and train a group of rebels in a foreign country? Well, yes they can. They have done it in the past-with mixed success. It isn’t a great option for the US. However, guess what folks- it’s the Middle East. There ARE no easy foreign policy options. There are no slam dunks. Doing nothing isn’t a slam dunk either, because that probably just means you have to intervene bigger later.
    I’m with Michael. I think the game is contain ISIS now , so that you don’t have to send the 82d Airborne in to defend Amman and Riyadh later. That would be a much tougher option than trying to raise up a Syrian rebel group. Oddly, Doug doesn’t seem to want to contemplate that an unchecked ISIS would grow into a much tougher enemy in a year or so if it gains control of oil fields in northern Iraq, for example. All he seems to care about is how hard is to counter them now. I have news for you, Doug. Give them a year to advance unchecked , and it will be tougher still.

  6. michael reynolds says:


    Not your job. I love it. You have bupkis and yet from your position of invincible ignorance and intellectual laziness you conclude that Mr. Obama is a “dolt.”

    Yeah. He’s the dolt.

  7. Stonetools says:


    Shorter Jack. I don’t have the foggiest idea of what to do. But hey, I can fling poo with the best of them.
    I’ve noticed that not a single one of the President’s critics can come up with a better plan than what he has been doing. Until they do, I’m going to conclude that this is the best we can do.

  8. Jack says:

    @michael reynolds: Jane, you ignorant slut!

    The president hasn’t even gotten to the specifics that you requested of me, a layman with no access to current intel nor an inside track to the leaders of these countries.

    He armed the “moderates” in Lybia and look how that turned out. The facts are in your face. These Syrian “moderates” have agreed to a non-aggression pact with the very people you and Obama the Dolt expect them to fight.

  9. Jack says:

    @Stonetools: So you suggest that I not criticize a bad plan?

    I’m going to conclude that this is the best we can do.

    Yeah, run with that while his military generals, you know, the people we pay to come up with a plan, disagree with him.

  10. michael reynolds says:


    So by your own admission you know nothing except that Mr. Obama must be wrong. I think you’ve neatly summarized the opposition to Mr. Obama. Rinse and repeat for health care, immigration, taxes, and on and on. Thank you for honestly revealing the utter vacuity of your “position.”

  11. Jack says:

    @michael reynolds: I know for a FACT that Obama is wrong. Why don’t you address the fact that the “moderates” have a non-aggression pact with the people Obama expects them to fight.

    Stop polishing Obama’s knob.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Well, I was going to say that Jack has nothing, but he does have the tendency so often seen on the right to drift into homo-erotic thoughts when actual ideas are just too hard to come by. Have a cupcake Jack.

  13. edmondo says:

    Stop polishing Obama’s knob.

    But he does it so well! And he obviously enjoys it, he does it a couple times a day.

  14. michael reynolds says:


    And your plan for ISIS is?


  15. stonetools says:


    Yeah, run with that while his military generals, you know, the people we pay to come up with a plan, disagree with him.

    I’m sure you can supply a link to support your claim that all Obama’s military generals disagree with Obama’s plan . If you can’t supply such a link, I will dismiss your claim as failing for lack of evidence to support it .

    Go ahead, please supply such a link. I’ll wait.

  16. Mr. Prosser says:

    Way back in 2004 John Kerry said this, “I will use our military when necessary, but it is not primarily a military operation. It’s an intelligence-gathering, law-enforcement, public-diplomacy effort,” he said. “And we’re putting far more money into the war on the battlefield than we are into the war of ideas. We need to get it straight.” I think he was correct then and the idea is correct now. Yes, air strikes to weaken positions but also intelligence gathering, special operations and droning the daylights out of them. Don’t arm anyone but demand cooperation (airbases, listening sites, etc.) from regional governments.

  17. lounsbury says:

    In this particular instance the reflexive Obama bashers are rather more right than not.

    The idea that the Americans, with their utter sh!te for human-intel in the region are not going to get played by the various factions is rather absurd, as is the idea that in the configuration of the Syrian civil war that you lot can work out to match your Can’t Side With Iran and Can’t Side With Al Qaeda and Can’t Side With ISIS (one should quickly begin to see how utterly absurd this is).

    Apparently your rather similar idiotic side-picking game in Lebanon back in its civil war taught you nothing at all.

    Your best option on ISIS is really Iranian, but since that is impossible given your silly Purist politics on Left and Right, you’re left with perhaps supporting Kurdish separatists, as at least with the Kurds you can count on their hatred of the ISIS and Nusra front crowds’ Arab supremacist to keep them anti-takfiri jihadism, even though their religious mores are not of necessity that far off.

  18. James Pearce says:


    I can fling poo with the best of them.


    That “Jane, you ignorant slut” remark was priceless too. Just like 1978.

  19. Slugger says:

    I think that the less than two divisions of infantry stuck in a desert are not much of a danger and that whoever runs Syria is of more interest to religious sectarian in the vicinity than to the USA.
    There is a big political attack on Obama for being weak, feckless, etc. Senator McCain recently stated that our southern and northern borders were porous to attacks in an interview with Anderson Cooper. In response to this clamor which appears to have frightened America into witlessness, the administration has undertaken a kabuki operation with talk of bombing and building a tough coalition of Syrians who are willing to fight for America while fighting in their own civil war while giving all of us big discounts on our next purchase of iPhones.
    I will stipulate that there are people who bear illwill toward the US, and some of them are willing to do outrageous evil things like murder unarmed prisoners; they dream of bloodshed in New York and romantic dinners with Jennifer Lawrence. I doubt that they should dominate our national discourse.
    What should Obama do? Play a round of golf and tell Lindsey Graham to stop peeing the bed.

  20. michael reynolds says:


    I don’t think our problem with more openly siding with the Iranians is American puritanism, I believe it’s two things: 1) the potential Iranian nuke which is almost inevitable but politically poisonous in the states, and 2) not wanting to seem to have chosen a side in Shia v. Sunni.

    Personally I think the Iranians should be natural allies or at least not hostiles. But I’m not sure the Iranians are ready for that, and I know we aren’t. As for Sunni and Shia I can’t help but notice that when a westerner is killed it’s a Sunni holding the knife or bomb or jet.

    Will we get played by the factions? Inevitably. But the alternatives are either to let ISIS continue to expand, use local forces to contain them until they wither away, or invade. That last has no traction. And given that the KSA is the logical path of ISIS expansion, I suppose we can’t let that happen. So we’re down to containment using the US Air Force and various snakes to do the containing.

  21. al-Ameda says:

    Republicans: Obama is weak, he must arm the resistance to ISIS!
    Obama: I am funding forces opposed to ISIS.
    Republicans: Makes no difference, we still hate you.

  22. lounsbury says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Mate, they are not going to expand further. They got where they are in a fit of inattention. That moment passed. The idea they roll into KSA is an absurdity.

  23. Ron Beasley says:

    Rick Moran nails it:

    In the end, I suspect they will be able to hold a convention of “moderate Syrian rebels” in a space larger than a phone booth but smaller than a room at the Holiday Inn.

    and this

    There is no reconciling the twin goals of getting rid of Assad and ISIS. There is no uniting the various factions — at least under the rubric of a secular, “democratic” opposition. There’s nothing we can do to stop Russia and Iran from giving arms to Assad, or running diplomatic interference for him at the UN.

    Sorry, but this remains a problem without a solution.

  24. michael reynolds says:


    I hope you’re right.

    I have no idea what their capabilities are, though I note a string of setbacks. But it’s the only winning move they have. Otherwise they’re surrounded by hostile (though not exactly united) forces. They apparently can’t take Assad, they balked at Baghdad, even if they could take Jordan Israel would stop them. So they either sit where they are and hide from American drones, or they head south. It’s south or nothing.

    The Kingdom’s security forces are apparently formidable, and they have an air force, but last I heard they’d hired Pakistani mercenaries to watch the border. That seems a bit shaky to me. There’s an ideological sympatico between ISIS and lots of folks in KSA and the Saudis don’t have much of a reputation for fighting their own battles.

    I defer to your knowledge of the area, but if the only winning move is south, I have to think ISIS is looking south. Are there no forces within Saudi Arabia that would prefer Al-Baghdadi to the Saudi royals?

  25. michael reynolds says:


    And now my gambling side comes out.

    A bottle of your favorite against a bottle of mine, with a $150 cap. One year from now, if ISIS has made no significant move against the KSA, you win, if it has I win.


  26. dazedandconfused says:

    Looks like a process of trial and error. It’s probably going to take the Iraqis a year or so to get their act back together, and in the meantime it’s containment while looking for something better. It may take some time for an organic rebellion against this crazy stuff to form up.

    Obama opted for containment with the Bundyville Rebellion. A twisted ideology sows the seeds of it’s own destruction and usually gets weaker with time. The members start bickering with each other and/or get bored. Tell their boys the attack is coming any minute…and after a year or two…

    If containable, why should we go Code Brown if the people right next door are willing to wait it out?

  27. Robin Cohen says:

    @michael reynolds: So far, Egypt and Jordan are sitting on the sidelines. If the coalition Obama talks of does not materialize, will he fight with minimal help?
    Five hundred billion dollars from the US Treasury if Congress agrees. Are any other countries going to contribute? I hope this is not another coalition of the willing with US one of the few who is more than willing. Are the Iraqis going to fight this time instead of just running away and hiding? I sure hope not. Oh, and while we’re asking questions, is there an exit strategy this time?

  28. Dave Schuler says:

    I think the whole thing is the goofiest idea I’ve ever heard of. There is no bright line separating moderates from radicals. Today’s moderate is tomorrow’s radical. Or vice versa.

    Consequently, what “arm the moderates” means in practice is that those who support the policy want to bomb them and arm them. Does that sound like a well thought out plan to anyone?

  29. Robin Cohen says:

    @Dave Schuler: I have noticed that Obama’s plans for most programs have not been well thought out at all. Here we are engaged in yet another war and I believe we are going through a rehash of old mistakes which is why I asked those questions, especially the one about an exit strategy. In addition, speakers on the Sunday talk shows seem to believe we will HAVE to have boots on the ground eventually and a three to five year war whether we are successful or not. Anyone remember the false promises made about previous recent wars? I do and I think Obama is blowing smoke to obscure what he’s really going to authorize.

  30. michael reynolds says:

    I see one person after another criticizing and when I ask for some better plan it’s nothing but crickets and tumbleweed.

    When I see that absolutely no one seems to have a better idea I agree with @Stonetools that I’m left with little choice but to take what’s on the table.

    But just in case someone is secretly nurturing some hidden brilliance on this, I’ll ask again: what’s your plan?

  31. Ron Beasley says:

    @michael reynolds: I am of the thought that the current plan will not work. It’s time to admit our policy of getting rid of Assad and getting rid of ISIS are incompatible. There are simply to few if any “moderate rebels” and even they can’t be trusted. The Iraqi army is being advised by the Iranians and many units are taking their orders from Iran not Baghdad. The Turks have made it clear they won’t get involved and they are perhaps the most important cog in the wheel. Many if not most members of the KSA army have been trained by the extreme Wahhabi and many are sympathetic with ISIS.
    What is “on the table” will fail and only make things worse.

  32. Robert C says:

    @Ron Beasley:


    1. Support Assad.
    2. Olive branch to Iran.
    3. Olive branch to Hizbullah
    4. Boot Turkey from NATO
    5. Support Kurds
    6. Freeze assists of KSA, Qatar etc for supporting IS
    7. Wake-a- mole for the foreseeable future.
    8. No US boots on ground…that’s what IS wants.


  33. michael reynolds says:

    @Ron Beasley:
    Okay so we leave everything be. ISIS presumably starts subversion efforts in the KSA where they have many who sympathize with their apocalyptic views. What if ISIS does destabilize Saudi? Ditto Jordan?

    My position from the start has been that ISIS is not ten feet tall and should be contained until they collapse. My ‘end game’ is that we spend moderate efforts hitting them from the air, and try to keep the feuding neighbors on the same page. I think that’s easily do-able and hopefully matures into broader areas of cooperation. But in effect we’d be doing what we are already doing there and in Yemen.

    If we do nothing we are in effect relying on the Saudis – who last fought effectively under T E Lawrence — to defend a major portion of the world’s oil supply. The Saudis who are intellectually half in bed with ISIS. The Saudis who bankrolled ISIS. The Saudis who have to hire Pakistani mercenaries.

    What do we do if terrorist bombs start going off in Riyadh and armed infiltrators show up in Mecca and various Saudi royals head to Monte Carlo? Is there a point at which you’d want to intervene?

  34. michael reynolds says:

    @Robert C:
    So in effect you pick “Shia” in a centuries old religious war and dump on Turkey for the crime of caring about their hostages.

  35. Robert C says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Turkey, at the very least is sympathetic to IS and al Nusra……some argue the they are aiding them.

    I couldn’t care what religion they espouse…..Shia, Sunni, Jain, Siekh, Hindu, Buddist….at this point in time US interests are best served aiding Assad in his fight against IS, and working with Iran and Hizbullah to fight IS.


  36. michael reynolds says:

    @Robert C:
    If that’s your policy then it will be seen as picking sides in a religious war. That means potentially losing the KSA and Jordan. I think that would be buying a whole lot more trouble than we already have. And dumping Turkey is insane. Look where Turkey is on the map. We want Turkey inside the tent pissing out not outside pissing in.

  37. Robert C says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Turkey is dumping us as we speak..err..type.


  38. michael reynolds says:

    @Robert C:
    This isn’t petulant boyfriends and their girlfriends. Pushing Turkey away would be insane. Aligning ourselves openly with one side in a religious war would be insane.

    Our core interests in the area are oil, also the stability that keeps oil flowing, and as few looney jihadis as we can manage. But mostly oil. Which would not really be helped by aligning ourselves in a religious war against the Saudis because they may be SOB’s but they’re kinda sorta our SOB’s. We need a solution that does not make matters worse.

    Your solution aligns us openly with Shia regimes, a minority in Islam, with consequences that would impact Malaysia, Indonesia and the mother of all potential disasters, Pakistan.

    If we are making nice with Iran – which I favor – it should be with the tacit support of the Sunni powers.

  39. lounsbury says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Significant move means direct armed action à la prise de Mousul and N. Iraq, on KSA.

    However, I shan’t take your USD 150, I would credit it towards buying a geographical Atlas.

  40. michael reynolds says:


    I have the Google, and the cheap shot was unnecessary.

    Look, I appreciate and honor your on-the-ground knowledge. I respect your opinion. But had I asked you a year ago whether ISIS would take Mosul would you have said yes? Are you going to tell me ISIS can’t put a dozen suicide bombers in Riyadh or 50 gunmen in Mecca? Are you going to tell me there’s no fifth column in KSA that supports ISIS? Is the Saudi army 100% reliable? You don’t think there are elements in Saudi security forces that sympathize with ISIS the way the Pakistani ISI does with the Taliban? Will Saudis fight if necessary? Will they fight any better than the Iraqis?

    Is there no ambitious Saudi general who sees how well ISIS gets along with ex-Baathists and begins to see himself as the next defender of the holy places?

    An awful lot of dictators and kings found their perches less stable than they thought, and foreigners quite often find themselves surprised as well. No one thought Batista would fall, no one thought Eric Honecker was going down, the entire USSR fell over dead and the CIA – whose entire job was spying on the Soviets – had no clue.